Houstonian Ilana Bell finds great comfort knowing that when her recent college graduate son makes aliyah at the end of the summer and joins the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier, his needs and well-being will be cared for by a dedicated organization, Friends of the IDF.

“My son, Ryan Maidenberg, has been planning on joining the IDF for the past few years, after graduating from college,” said Bell, after attending the May kick-off event of the new Friends of the IDF-Texas Chapter. “This has been a long-term goal of Ryan’s and his passion and love of Israel is an inspiration to us all.”

Bell was one of the nearly 70 people who turned out for the event to launch a local FIDF chapter that will raise funds to provide Israeli soldiers with life-changing educational opportunities, as well as social, cultural and recreational services.

Founded in 1981 as a not-for-profit fundraising organization, now with 15 chapters across North America, FIDF delivers support to the brave young men and women whose duty it is to protect the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people.

“FIDF is focused on supporting Israeli soldiers,”

Said Bryan Leibman, FIDF Texas’ lay leader who, with his wife, Eleonora, hosted the chapter’s kick-off.

Leibman commented on the youth of Israel’s military forces – one of the most battle-tested armies in the world. “It’s these ‘children’ who are protecting Israel. It’s the children who are protecting the adults. They are looking after their parents and are looking after the security of Israel and the Jewish people. We are grateful to them,” Leibman said.

Scott Kammerman, FIDF Texas’ executive director, said the local chapter aims to connect local Israel supporters with Israeli soldiers.

FIDF’s national director, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Yitzhak “Jerry” Gershon, came to Houston for the kick-off and highlighted FIDF’s marquee programs. During his visit, the highly decorated Israeli war hero also gave a presentation to students at Beth Yeshurun Day School.

FIDF’s DIGNITY Program provides grants, food allowances and vouchers to soldiers who face economic hardships. Of the nearly 19,000 Israeli soldiers who currently face economic hardships, many are lone soldiers.

The organization’s Lone Soldiers Program sponsors services for the young men and women who have left the comfort of their families to move to Israel by themselves and serve in the military. FIDF partners with organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh to take care of lone soldiers upon their arrival in Israel, during their military service and afterward.

FIDF’s IMPACT! Program grants four-year higher-education scholarships to former IDF combat soldiers who hail from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. This past year, some 20,000 soldiers participated in an FIDF-sponsored educational program, Gershon said; the organization, last year, doled out 1,004 scholarships. Over the past three years, FIDF has enabled 3,000 soldiers to study in Israeli universities.

“These are soldiers who otherwise cannot afford university,” Gershon said. “Many of them are the first in their families to earn an academic degree.”

As part of the IMPACT! Program, scholarship recipients perform 130 hours of community service per year; projects include working with Holocaust survivors, special needs children and terminally ill cancer patients. Gershon said that 100 percent of the funds raised for FIDF education scholarships goes to the soldiers.

“This is the best investment in our future,” FIDF’s national director said. “We don’t raise money for money. We raise money to support programs that strengthen the soldiers themselves, that strengthen Israeli society and strengthen the Jewish people, worldwide.”

Bell kvells over her son Ryan, who, this spring, graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University, double majoring in economics and international relations. He is working this summer for a local investment management firm; then, he will make aliyah and join the IDF as a lone soldier.

“We were happy to hear that a Texas Chapter of FIDF has finally been launched, and look forward to being a part of this important organization,” said Bell, a longtime supporter of pro-Israel organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Israel Bonds. “It is meaningful to us on so many levels, especially since our son, Ryan, will be serving in the IDF.”

Shirley and Marvin Rich attended the kick-off and are excited about FIDF’s Texas Chapter. The Riches’ grandson and granddaughter, Mati Poor and Ilana Poor, currently are serving in the IDF, making their grandparents quite proud.

The Riches said they are supportive of the new local FIDF chapter because the organization serves the men and women of Israel’s naval, air and ground forces, who serve to keep Israel safe.

Other community leaders at the kick-off included Frieda and Melvin Dow, who have a son in Israel.

“FIDF does all kinds of amazing and wonderful things,” Melvin said. “Anything that the rest of the Jewish community can do to support them is well worthwhile.”

FIDF Texas’ executive director was pleased with the launch and thanked those who attended.

“From the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received, both at the event and afterwards, I believe that the Houston launch of the FIDF Texas Chapter was a great success with about 65 people in attendance, representing an important cross-section of the pro-Israel community,” Kammerman said.

“I was very pleased with the turnout, because it brought together Jews and non-Jews, established and emerging community leaders, to learn about the importance of an organization that is laser-focused on looking after the welfare and well-being of the brave young men and women who protect Eretz Yisrael,” he said.

FIDF is hosting its national mission to Israel Nov. 4-10, 2012, offering participants the opportunity to experience Israel beyond its cultural and historic landmarks – specifically through the eyes of its soldiers. Mission participants will receive exclusive access to IDF bases and events and will meet with IDF soldiers, commanders and Israeli leaders.

For information abut FIDF and its 2012 mission to Israel, email Scott Kammerman at [email protected].